Amazingly, neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has stated their best and most obvious case for airstrikes against Syria: without the strikes, or the credible threat of strikes (see below), the Assad regime will deploy them again and again, and win the civil war hands-down.
Kerry came close to articulating that reason when he fried Rand Paul(R-KY), who unleashed a typically fact-free diatribe telling the secretary that he, Kerry, has no idea if Assad would use chemicals again if we do not strike. Kerry, after pointing out that he, Defense Secretary Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chair Dempsey and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), but very clearly not Rand Paul, know what war is because they volunteered for duty, told Paul that he needed to do his homework, and read the classified materials.
Although the entertainment value of Kerry's takedown masked his more important message, the unambiguous implication is that the classified materials show without qualification that Assad has plans to use chemicals again... and probably again-and-again-and-again.
Has no one realized that if this event passes without a significant response that Assad simply uses chemicals to decimate both the opposition and any civilians that may get in the way? So far as the civil war is concerned, it is "game over." It is not dissimilar to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs that forced Japan to its knees in the Second World War.
The notion that, given a free hand to win and also decimate the population so there will be no future uprisings, Assad would instead agree to come to a negotiating table with the opposition is, frankly, ludicrous.
Let me say, for full disclosure, that I supported Gulf War I, opposed Gulf War II (see, e.g., Vietnam and Iraq: From Quagmire to Quicksand), supported the Libya policy (including, and most especially, McCain notwithstanding, because we were "leading from behind," an awesomely smart policy), and I would support airstrikes in Syria if we take it to the UN General Assembly to get a Uniting for Peace resolution from the General Assembly.
And therein lay the opportunity for a grand strategy that has the added virtue of being smart policy. As previously described in this space, Kerry articulated five reasons to strike, of which the first two were, respectively, punishment and deterrence.
But, suppose we leave the first goal, punishment, to sanctions and diplomacy, and thus go to Congress for an authorization to strike, and going to the UN, the next time Assad uses chemicals or any other WMD.
A simple "no vote" on military strikes will hand Assad the civil war by deploying chemical weapons. A pre-authorization to strike if he uses any WMD again tells Assad that we, and the world, are watching, united and prepared. It does not get us immediately involved, nor does it make us go it alone. It provides time to bring the world on-board, and to engage in all those other diplomatic activities that many have proposed. It tells Assad that he cannot win the war by deploying WMD.
I believe Congress would support this combination of intensive diplomatic activity and sanctions with a pre-authorization to strike if WMD are used again. That would enable pressure to be brought to bear on China, if not Russia, to accede, to avoid the military strikes they oppose, with a pre-authorized approval to strike upon the next use. Some have suggested that Assad can be forced to give up his chemical weapons. This seems like a real long shot, but certainly worth a try.
And, here, comes the key element. I trust President Obama, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, and Joint Chief Chair Dempsey NOT to create an artificial pretense -- such as the Gulf of Tonkin or Iraq's WMDs and mushroom clouds and yellow cake in Niger and planted stories that were then quoted as if they were independent sources -- to go to war. They did not hide from the wars of their generation, and so they do not need to prove their manhood by sending other peoples' children to war.
Can the rebels fool the world by staging a chemical attack, blaming the Assad regime, to provoke an attack? On this matter, with the UN enlisted in advance, I think we will have to trust our leaders to demand as much certainty as possible from the intelligence sources. At that point, we may indeed err on one side or the other, but it is fair to say that an attack of any great magnitude, or of large numbers, would ipso facto have to come from the Assad regime.
So, there we have it. Diplomatic/economic punishment. Credible military deterrence. A pre-authorization vote Congress is almost certain to pass. Fulfillment of all of Kerry's goals in responding to this crime.
As you all jump down my throat on this, please include an explanation of why, if we have no military threat that Assad sees staring him in the face, he would respond to any other punishment or deterrence when he knows he can end the civil war using his chemicals AND decimate the opposition so that none remains.
If Assad remains in power by deploying chemical weapons, I do care.
So should everyone.